Hard as it may be to believe, this year sees 30 years since the first publication of Anthony Browne’s Willy the Wimp! To celebrate this milestone, Browne has written a new book: Willy’s Stories follows the chimpanzee as once a week he walks through an ordinary-looking set of doors and straight into an adventure.
Where will those doors take him today: to a mysterious desert island with footprints in the sand; down a deep, dark rabbit hole full of curious objects; or perhaps on board a pirate ship, face to face with Captain Hook? Wherever he ends up, Willy’s journeys begin when he walks through those inviting doors.
We invited the former children’s laureate to step through the FCBG doors and tell us a bit more about Willy and his background, and here’s what Anthony Browne had to say:
“I’m amazed to realise that Willy the Wimp is now 30 years old. I don’t remember why I chose to make Willy a chimpanzee, but his character origins are more discernible. The way that Willy copes with life is similar to a lot of children. I am often asked if the character is based on me. I suppose he is to an extent, but I believe that I fall into a large group of people who had similar experiences as children. As the younger sibling, I grew up in the constant shadow of my older brother, and much of my childhood seemed like a hopeless competition. He would always beat me at everything. Willy is a chimpanzee, living in a world of gorillas. The gorillas are bigger, stronger, more powerful and more important than he is.
Willy The Wimp is about Willy – a gentle soul who “wouldn’t hurt a fly”. He worries about treading on tiny insects as he walks and apologises to others when they knock into him. Willy endures constant bullying by the gorillas: Willy the wimp, they call him.
One day Willy sees an advertisement in a comic for a course: “Don’t be a wimp!” He applies for the course, and after a vigorous programme of exercises and weight lifting, he builds himself up until he is big enough to take on the gorillas. He sees the gorillas attacking Millie, the girl of his fancy, and they flee at the sight of the new-look chimpanzee. Millie tells Willie that he is her hero, and he appears inflated with pride as he walks away. The final sequence, however, shows him colliding with a lamppost and immediately apologising. Has he really changed?
Willy is a chimpanzee and therefore doesn’t look like any child, but in another sense he looks like every child, and it delights me when I receive confirmation of his universal appeal. One of the greatest letters I have ever received was from a child who wanted to know about Willy. It said,
“Dear Anthony Browne,
Is Willy a real person, or did you make him up?”
These few words seem to answer the ape question in as succinct and brilliant a way as possible. I love the fact that the child saw Willy as a person, and was able to look beyond Willy’s appearance to see the young child (probably him or herself) inside.
My other favourite letter was from a little boy called Bret in Australia. It wasn’t addressed to me but to Willy, and it contained one of the greatest pieces of advice that he or anyone has ever received. It said,
You don’t have to be big and strong. Just watch where you’re going.”
I always imagined Willy the Wimp as being a one-off. I had no desire to produce a series of stories about this character. But from time to time Willy has wandered into my consciousness and persuaded me to make another book about him. So we’ve now had Willy the Champ in which he triumphs over the bully Buster Nose, Willy and Hugh tells the story of Willy finding an unlikely new friend and Willy the Wizard where he’s given a special pair of football boots and scores the winning goal. I followed those eventually with a larger format and a different concept –Willy the Dreamer shows a series of pictures depicting his dreams, and Willy’s Pictures which lets us see how Willy transforms his favourite paintings into personal stories.
And that, I thought, was that. But yet again Willy wandered into my mind and wandered through some mysterious doors to discover an exciting world of stories. This book, Willy’s Stories is a kind of tribute to many of the writers and illustrators who inspired me as a child to love reading – both words and pictures. I hope it will help children to create their own stories and discover that reading can be exciting.”
This guest post was provided by Anthony Brown. The views expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the Federation of Children’s Book Groups.